Book review: Free Fall: A Sniper’s Story from Chechnya, by Nicolai Lilin –

Published Date: 09 August 2011 on


ACCORDING to an old Russian proverb, “having a prostitute for a daughter brings a family less dishonour than a soldier for a son”.

This extraordinary memoir plunges us back into the carnage of the last decade’s Second Chechen War. After a brutal Siberian education, Nicolai Lilin is called up as a sniper in the Russian army, fighting among the ruins of the Soviet empire. Alongside his colourful comrades Moscow, Shoe, Zenith and Deer, he wages war on the “Arabs” and “black arses” of the Caucasus. “Anyone,” says their captain Nosov, “who doesn’t want to be under us will end up underground.”

The painful memory of the Red Army’s humiliation in Afghanistan adds extra venom to their campaign against Muslim “terrorists”. Indeed, the narrative moves to the deadly rhythm of exploding bullets and grenades, bursts of blood and brain, indiscriminate air-strikes and skinning alive. In a war without rules, no person or place is sacred. But Captain Nosov also tells his men: “The war we’re fighting is just a cover for the trafficking run by the corrupt people in the government.”

In one of the book’s compelling mini-epics, the battalion is sent on a suicide mission to cover up collusion between Russian officers and their Chechen counterparts. At another moment, the casual shooting of a medal-bedecked veteran of the Second World War seems to confirm that “post-Soviet society had erased the values of our forebears”.

Lilin serves up brilliantly harrowing set-pieces, but also illuminates the soul of the warrior. After another bloody fire-fight in the sewers and corpse-strewn rubble of another shattered town, he and his men are “pierced by a sadness that went through out soul like the dampness that soaked our clothes”.

When the sniper is discharged, and leaves comrades destined for the Siberian forest or an imminent death, he realises that his ordeal has no end. As his grandfather used to say: “There is no Heaven or Hell – anyone who does wrong and commits serious sins is simply reincarnated as Russian”.

The smugness and indifference of the people in his home town also remind him of the words of one of the few “Arabs” they took prisoner: “Our society doesn’t deserve all the effort we’re putting into this war”. Walking the streets of a motherland sold on the West, the sniper feels “an inexplicable impulse to shoot everyone”.

This article was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on August 7 2011.

Free Fall by Nicolai Lilin
Canongate, £12.99